Spring Breakup

For me it was spring break. But in the mountains of Glacier Park, it was spring breakup. The sun’s intensity felt as though it would fry me. Looking down, I could almost watch the snow melting. Looking up, I could watch the snow melting. Fueled by sun-rotted snow and ice, a near-constant torrent of avalanches rattled and banged down the innumerable chutes and cliffs surrounding me.

A crashing sound erupted behind me, and I jerked my head around just in time to see an avalanche bury the ski track I’d just made. For half a mile, our trail ran beneath a band of cliffs, all of which were in the process of dumping their winter-long accumulation of snow. Though we tried to minimize our time in the avalanche paths, progress came slowly as we broke trail through the lumpy debris.

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Breaking Trail Through Avalanche Debris

As is often the case, the adventure did not follow our plans. In theory, we would spend two nights at Comeau Pass and ski the slopes of Gunsight Mountain. But avalanche danger and a growing collection of blisters inside our hard, plastic ski boots changed our plans. We opted for a campsite at Sperry Chalet, cutting 3 miles and roughly 1000 vertical feet of climbing from our trip. Our campsite, perched atop a snowdrift, afforded impressive views of Mount Edwards and the valley below.

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Winter camping is a slow affair. Nothing is safe from snow, and therefore from becoming wet. Everything takes far longer than normal. Snow must be melted to provide drinking water. A tent platform must be packed down. Some manner of footwear must be worn at all times.  Despite arriving at our camp early in the afternoon, setup and relaxation consumed the remainder of the day. Though we all wanted to ski, relaxing and enjoying the pristine glacier scenery seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. Our tent site afforded a fine view of Mt. Edwards, where the roar of avalanches was as regular as the roar of jets taking off at an airport.

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After dinner, I decided to go out and try a few turns on a slope behind our camp. I reached the top of the slope shortly before sunset, which left my oxygen hungry body a few minutes to take in deep breaths of cool air while my eyes enjoyed the sunset. The snow glistened gold in the soft evening light. Trees cast long shadows. Far off, Lake McDonald sparkled before the final rays of the sun dipped behind the mountains. I tightened my boots and slipped effortlessly down the slope. My twenty minutes of exertion climbing up paid off, and for 30 seconds, the perfect silence of the backcountry was overpowered by roaring wind as I hurled smoothly down the fall line of a wide chute. By the time I reached the bottom, my adrenaline rush was almost debilitating.

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The second day out afforded wonderful opportunity to do some laid back touring and exploring. We traversed the slopes above Sperry Chalet and headed toward Lincoln Pass. Inspired by a mountain goat’s wanderlust, I followed the animal’s tracks right to the summit of Lincoln Peak. From the bottom, the mountain didn’t appear particularly steep, so my initial plan was to descend the face. As it turned out, the ridge was steep enough that I had to boot pack part of the way up, and I quickly realized that heading straight down would be foolhardy at best. While following the ridge down, I kicked off a small avalanche. Had I followed my original plan, I may well have joined the avalanche debris spewing through that chute.

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During our short stay in the backcountry we took in our fill of sunny days, corn snow skiing, and impressive avalanches rumbling down faraway slopes. And then, suddenly, it was time to go home. I did not welcome the end of the trip, but neither did I regret it. After three days of strenuous hiking, three days of freeze dried food, three days of living out of a tent and backpack, the comforts of home seemed appealing. Wednesday, our final day in the backcountry, also indicated that it was time to go. We awoke to a grey moody sky spitting soggy snowflakes. With good weather evacuating, we followed suit, packing our gear and skiing down the trail we’d broken two days earlier.

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